On the road to Hiroshima by Shinkansen or car, you must stop in Okayama, a crossroad town between Honshu and Shikoku.
The Okayama region has a reputation in Japan: the weather is said to be good all year. The mountain range that separates the northern part of Chugoku from its southern part keeps all the clouds in the northern area of the island, saving the southern part from any rain!
Thus, the region has come to specialize in the cultivation of various fruits, particularly peaches and grapes, respectively momo and budo in Japanese.
More than the sunshine, it is primarily the location of Okayama which has made the city so prosperous. It's located on the north coast of the Seto Sea, at the crossroads of three rivers (Yoshii, Asahi and Takahishi) and on the road that connects the Sanyo Kyoto region to Hiroshima: a real crossroad.
Furthermore the Great Seto Bridge (1400 meters long) connects the city to the island of Shikoku, making it a key crossing point between two main islands of the archipelago.
Okayama and the Giant Peach
Peaches are the flagship product of the region, found absolutely everywhere in Okayama. Although the peaches you can buy nowadays are not Japanese (which are very small and hard) but the result of a cross made with Chinese peaches, introduced to Japan in 1875. Succulent and juicy, Okayama peaches are a real point of pride for the people of the region.
But the peach is also part of one of the most popular legends of Japan, also associated with the region of Okayama. This is the story of Momotaro, a little boy sent to earth from the sky inside of a peach pit, to brighten the days of an old couple without children.
One day Momotaro day decides to go and fight a demon and his gang who are terrorizing the region. Along the way he meets a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant, who agree to help him in his quest. With their help, he confronts and defeats the demon, retrieves the demon's treasure and goes back to his adoptive parents with whom he lives happily ever after. Around Okayama travelers can find statues of Momotaro and his three companions.
Okayama, city of daimyo and kings
But long before their construction Okayama was at the centre of Kibi, an established independent kingdom in the seventh century AD. Temples and remnants (such as kofun) of this kingdom lie to the northwest of the city and can be easily visited by bike.
Kibi road, which connects the town of Soja to Okayama, is also very popular among Japanese themselves who come to cycle on the bike path, stretching nearly 17km! They enjoy the microclimate of the region, but also the fields of cosmos and orchards found on the plains. The trail also runs through many sacred places like Kibitsuhiko shrine, a national treasure.
Legend also has it that Prince Kibitsuhiko, from the enemy Yamato clan, was sent to the area to pacify the kingdom of Kibi and release it from an ogre named Ura. This legend is often associated with that of Momotaro.
From Okayama, you can reach (to name just a few) Naoshima - the island of art, Matsuyama-jo Castle (unrelated to the one on Shikoku), the picturesque village of Kurashiki, and the small ports of Tomonoura and Onomichi.